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March 28, 2004

Alabama Roots: Columbia Continued

The memoirs of Ngnat's Great-Grandmother, Iva Wright.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

It was about that time that Tommy started talking about his brother, John. Of course, he didn't have a brother, but he thought he did. Every day, he would have a story to tell us about this imaginary brother John. John was a superman. He could do anything and go anywhere and he had all sorts of amazing adventures. After a while, we came to believe that the cure for this imaginary playmate was a real brother. We ordered one.

One day shortly before our new baby was born, Tommy went outside to play and, as there was no fence to keep him out, wandered over into Mrs. Meekins' yard. She was outside that day cleaning one of her antique treasures, an old spool bed. She had taken it partially apart and a small piece was lying on the ground. Curious, Tommy picked it up. When she discovered that he had it, she flew into a rage and came to our front door calling me. Showing me what he had taken, she began to rant and rave about how much our children were bothering her. "They stand outside and look through the windows at me," she said.

I had never seen them do that, but I said, "Well, I certainly don't want them to do that, and I will see to it that they never do it again."

She was not appeased, however. She continued, "If Tommy ever comes in my yard again and picks up anything, I am going to get a switch and whip him."

Again, I tried to appease her and said, "All right. I give you that privilege. I don't want him bothering your things."

By this time, she was screaming louder and louder, so loudly that several men who were nearby working on the street in front of the house who stopped work to listen. Then she said, "If I catch him again, I'm going to get a stick and kill him."

That was more than I could take. I said, "No, you will not!" I grabbed Tommy by the hand and pulled him into the house, slamming the door in her face. Then I walked straight through the house and out the back door to the home of my neighbor, Mrs. Yerby. She was someone I felt I could talk to. By the time I got there, I was crying so hard I could hardly talk. I told her what had happened, and said, "I just cannot live there anymore. The church has to do something about it. There has to be a fence built so that my children cannot just wander over into her yard anymore." Mrs. Yerby was sympathetic and promised that she would see to it that something was done. And sure enough, Mr. Meekins–that poor long-suffering man--soon arranged to put a fence between our yards. I was happy to see it, but that did not solve all our problems with her. I was so afraid that the children would do something that would cause real trouble. I knew she was mentally ill, and I feared what she might do. That day I prayed very earnestly that God would help me to keep calm and to do the right thing.

The day after her screaming outrage, I saw her in her yard. She was picking up the pecans that had fallen from her tree. The tree was on the boundary between our yards, and many of the pecans fell on our side. Rightly they were ours, but we never kept them. I always picked them up and gave them back to her. That day, I picked up a container, walked over to her praying silently, "Oh Lord, help me to do the right thing." I approached her calmly, as if nothing had happened between us and said, "Would you like me to help you pick up the pecans?"

"Yes, thank you, she replied." We picked up the nuts together and talked of everyday things. Neither of us ever mentioned that episode again.

When Halloween came around, the children always went to the school for a Halloween party, but after the war, a new activity was introduced into the neighborhood–Trick or Treat. That year I decided I would do something a little different. I baked a big cake and made some hot chocolate and told the girls that they could invite any of their friends to come by their house after the school party. I didn't have any idea how things would turn out, but a large number came. The girls had a good time and were so pleased that their mother had something different to serve to their friends.

My children always wanted me to read to them, and I did as often as I could. One time I had a terrible cold and I couldn't talk very well, much less read, I almost had pneumonia. But before I got out of bed, the children were begging me to read to them. I got them all in the bed with me and read them a story, but I would have to stop and cough every now and then. But we got through the story because I realized just how much that meant to them I was determined I was going to take more time to do that. One of their favorite stories was Heidi, though I don't recall ever reading the whole book. They liked the part about Heidi going up in the mountains to live with her grandfather and her caring for the sheep and goats with Peter. We read those chapters over and over again. The bedtime stories the prayers, the songs we sang at bedtime are still very vivid in my mind and I hope they are in theirs. One of the things I used to sing to Grace was her favorite song. She always asked for it. It was "The Old Rugged Cross" and that hymn still has a special meaning for me and for her.

We had a little private hospital in Columbia, not a very large one but an adequate one, and when it came time for our new baby to be born, I felt very good that there was a hospital close by. It was on a Sunday afternoon that I realized that it was time. Because there was a service being held that night at the church in Columbia, Carl decided it would be all right if he went. I was left in the care of my neighbor while we waited patiently for Carl to return from the service. I remember so vividly that when he returned and we were backing out of the driveway, the girls were standing in the window upstairs waving good-bye. I didn't want to leave them, but there was nothing else I could do.

When we got to the hospital, Carl stayed with me for a while but I assured him that I was doing fine and asked him to go home to stay with the children. At 12:30 Monday morning on May 12, 1947, the baby came. It was a little boy--just exactly what we had ordered, and we named him John Shadrick Wright. Tommy had his brother John, and we were all elated. Our family was complete. People who met Carl on the street the next day said that he acted as if it were his very first child. He was so proud of his family.

While I was in the hospital–and in those days, new mothers were kept for a week or more. The girls were very dependable. The morning after Johnny was born--after finding out about the new baby and rejoicing with me–Carl went downstairs and found ten year old Jo cooking breakfast and frying a squirrel. She had found the meat she had found in the refrigerator and decided it would be just the thing to please her father. I was amazed when I heard that because game is not easy to cook. Carl was so proud of her.

The girls were eager to come and see me in the hospital and wanted to bring me a gift as well. They stopped by the five and dime and chose a box of candy. They came back every day I was there. Of course, they wanted to see their new brother, but they also wanted to help me eat that box of candy. It didn't take them long to finish up the box.

Jo would also come to the hospital every morning before school. She wore her hair in long braids then and was accustomed to my braiding her hair every morning and tying the ends with ribbons. Carl apparently couldn't do it to suit her, so she brought the ribbons with her each day so I could do the braids as she liked them done.

The days passed and I got home with the baby, but I realized we had another problem. Before I went to the hospital, Tommy had been sleeping in the crib in our bedroom, and now he had to be moved. I had told Carl to move him onto a cot in the girl's room while I was in the hospital as I thought it was important to get him settled before we brought Johnny home. But Carl found it much easier just to let him stay where he was. The first night, Tommy just could not get settled. He kept getting up and finding some excuse to come downstairs and into our bedroom. He wanted a drink of water, or he had to use the potty. It nearly broke my heart. I just couldn't stand him feeling that we had deserted him, that Mother didn't love him anymore. He finally adjusted, but I've always carried that little ache with me.

It's funny, Tommy had played with his imaginary brother John for a long time, but when his real brother came along, he never mentioned the other one again. Of course, when John got a little older, he and Tommy didn't always get along so well. Tommy wanted to boss John around, but John didn't want to be bossed, and he often resorted to sneaky things to get back at Tommy. The imaginary brother, unfortunately, had been a better playmate.

All in all, after the baby came, we got along very well. John was a sweet baby. He didn't cry much, and he was content most of the time. The girls were often impatient with Tommy--he was just too close to them in age, but they adored John and played with him as if he were their own special baby doll. They loved to dress him up and show him off to their friends. They were good baby sitters too.

Carl's church work was really keeping him very busy, and when he got an opportunity for some help, he was pleased. Ethelynde Ballance, one of our friends from Hyde County, had finished her college work and had taken an English teaching position at Columbia High School, but she really wanted to do church work. She talked with Carl about it and he decided to try to help her. He went to the District Superintendent and talked also with the Bishop, but when he mentioned her need to the Woman's Society of Christian Service, the church's women's organization, they volunteered to help her financially. She wanted to become a Director Of Religious Education or a Rural Worker, but she was particularly interested in being a Rural Worker. After a while she went through a qualification process and began working with all of Carl's churches. She especially worked with the youth, the children and the women. But more than that, she worked with the whole community.

One time Ethelynde was doing some visiting out in the country, visiting shut-ins and lonely people. There was one woman she was particularly concerned about because she not only lived alone, but she lived in a very remote area far from any neighbors. Ethelynde asked her, "Don't you get lonely out here by yourself?" But the woman's reply amused her.

The old lady just laughed. "Oh, Lord no, Honey. I don't get lonely. I've got company. There is always me and the Lord and the Devil."

Ethelynde and her sister Bernice came to our house one day for a meal. It was to be a special one because it was Bernice's birthday, and I had baked her a cake and prepared a good meal. After we had eaten, she tried to express her appreciation, but ended up giving me a rather backhanded compliment. "I have always said," she commented, " that you can make the best meals--out of the nearest nothing." I took it as a compliment.

Shelton Ludford was a young man in our church who worked in the hardware store in town. He had an eye for decorating, and after seeing that the furniture in our living room was old and dilapidated, he decided, quite on his own, to make some changes on behalf of the church. He came one afternoon when I was away, took the rug out, took the furniture, put down a new carpet, and moved in several new pieces of furniture. When I came home, my room was completely new. I was thrilled, but at the same time a little upset. I had been asked just that morning to give a speech to some group, and in order to get ready, I had left the house in disarray. There were dirty dishes in the sink, and the beds were unmade. When I realized he had been there and had seen the kind of housekeeper I was, I was so embarrassed. Shelton was an unusual young man and someone who was very helpful to us while we were in Columbia.

There was something else about that unusual about our time in Columbia. Columbia was the county seat and since it was wartime, there were many young people who came there when they wanted to be married. We never knew when someone would drop by and ask for a wedding right then and there. I witnessed a lot of weddings, and the children did too. One day just before Christmas I was busy making fruitcakes. I had cut up all the fruit and had everything spread out on the dining room table when a young couple came to the door wanting to be married. As he usually did, Carl agreed to perform the ceremony, but told them they would need two witnesses. I would serve as one, but they would have to find a second person as well. He told them the names of a couple of people downtown who were usually willing to be a witness and sent them off to find them. That gave me enough time to change my clothes, prepare the living room for the event. I just closed the door between the living and dining rooms and left the fruitcake supplies out on the table.

On another occasion, we had just installed a new heater in the living room. It was an old pot bellied stove of some kind–probably a coal heater–and when we fired it up, it started smoking. There must have been some kind of oil coating on the outer surface which began to burn off. While we were fanning with towels, trying to get the smoke out of the house, the doorbell rang. It was another couple wanting to be married. They had brought a friend with them to serve as witness, so we had no time to get the place in better condition. So Carl performed that ceremony in a smoky haze, and, as he usually did, he charged those boys no fee. He always told them, "If you will do my fighting, I'll do your marrying." When they were about to leave, their friend commented, "Well, this is one couple who literally got married in a fog."

It was hard for me to keep the living room in order because that was where we really lived. In the cold weather the living room was the only room in the house warm enough for us spend time in. One warm Easter Sunday, we had a couple who came to be married, and Carl suggested that rather than having a parsonage wedding, they might want to go down to the church for the ceremony. " It is beautiful down there with all the flowers and Easter lilies," he said. The bride was thrilled at the prospect of a church wedding with flowers. We asked our neighbor Mrs. Meekins (yes, the one who had threatened Tommy) to go with us to be a witness, and she was pleased to do that. After the service, she surprised us by volunteering that she had all the ingredients in her home for a wedding reception, and she invited us to come there for a party. It worked out nicely. Later we got a letter from the girl's mother thanking us for giving her daughter such a lovely wedding.

Most people are aware that during World War II many foods and other items needed for the war effort were rationed. Each family was issued a certain number of rations coupons when they could exchange for certain foods, for gasoline, or for goods made of materials like leather, metal, or rubber. We managed pretty well. We didn't have much money anyway, and the children were used to only one pair of shoes a year. The summers they went barefoot and shoes were only needed for Sundays and for cold weather.

The one rationed food we missed most was sugar. Now we learned, as others did, to find substitutes. Some people began putting salt in their coffee to take off the bitter edge, but we preferred syrup or molasses or honey. Those sweeteners could also be put on our morning cereal. But there is no way we could substitute for sugar when making our favorite cakes or pies. That just wouldn't work. All the women we knew hoarded their sugar rations so that on special occasions they could make their special favorites. That is what the women of our church did when we learned that Columbia had been chosen as the site for a district-wide church meeting. All the ministers of the Elizabeth City District, their wives, and many of their church members would attend the event. It was to be a big affair, and the women of our church were expected to feed all those people. They took on the task cheerfully, and each woman prepared well in advance, baking her specialties with the sugar she has held back for just such an occasion.

When the big day arrived, the men of the church arrived early and set up tables in the yard as there was no room in the church building that was large enough to hold such a crowd. The weather was overcast, but it we felt that we had no reason to be concerned about the weather for at least for several hours. As noon approached, the tables were covered with cloths, and all the women began to arrive with their foods. The tables were loaded with delicious food, and almost everyone had brought a beautiful cake or pie make from their sugar hoard. We waited for the morning session to be adjourned. And we waited. And we waited. The meeting went on. Meanwhile, the sky began to look threatening. Rain was surely on the way.

Someone finally went to the District Superintendent and suggested that he adjourn the sessions immediately so that everyone could eat before the rains came. He responded, "No." The agenda for the session had not been completed, and he intended to finish that agenda before anyone was allowed to eat. Of course, you guessed it. By the time they were dismissed, and the people had just filled their plates, the rain came. The rain just poured down in sheets, and those poor women could do nothing but watch as their precious cakes and pies just floated off the tables. They were all ruined. I have never seen a more angry group of women in my life. They just could not understand why the District Superintendent couldn't have done better. And to add to their problems, the women were also having trouble with their clothes. Some of those wartime fabrics were very prone to shrinkage, and those women were shocked to discover that their dresses were shrinking up above their knees as they fought to save the food. I don't remember who the District Superintendent was at that time, but I'll bet there are many who will never forget or forgive him.

Then it came Christmas time, and Foster Basnight, as he always did, had gone out in the countryside and got in touch with the women he wanted to bake cakes for the preacher's family. We had several cakes--I don't remember how many–beautiful cakes. And there was the big turkey he had provided, as well. With all that bounty, I decided that the day after Christmas, Carl's birthday, when we always had our Christmas dinner, would be a good time to invite Foster to our home for a meal. He came and we enjoyed a wonderful meal together. When it came time for desert, I asked, "Foster, which cake would you like to have?"

He said, "What do you mean which cake? I want a piece of everyone of them!"

Knowing his physical condition–he had angina very badly and was supposed to limit his sweets intake. I said, "Foster, you know you should not eat like that."

He said, "I know that. But I am going to eat what I want, and if I die, I'll die happy."

The next morning, the first thing we heard was that Foster was dead. Someone had come to visit him, and as he was standing there talking to them, he just dropped dead. He knew his condition. He knew he could go at anytime. He had talked to Carl about it and had asked that Carl officiate at his funeral even if, at the time of his death, we were living somewhere else. He said that he had everything planned, every little detail taken care of. "All you will have to do is follow my instructions."

When the day of the funeral came, we were all heartbroken. I have never seen such an outpouring of love for any one person. There were so many flowers, that when it came time for them to be taken to the cemetery, they had to be transported in a moving van. Hundreds of people attended the funeral. The church was completely filled and people stood outside overflowing the sidewalks. All I could do was cry. Foster had done so many wonderful things for our family, but he was just as generous to others. He was concerned about everyone. If someone in any of our four churches was sick or needed help, he had been there to help. He always took charge of the kitchen and was willing to do anything that needed to be done. People had come to depend on him to help them during illness or at the time of a death.

Foster Basnight was one reason we loved living in Columbia, but there were many reason we hated to leave. We had to move on, however; the system of itinerancy for ministers in the Methodist Church demanded that we do so. At the Annual Conference in November 1948, we found that we were going to be moved to a place called in central North Carolina called Goldston.

Posted by Bigwig at March 28, 2004 09:30 PM | TrackBack
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.

You might want to cancel that link to Bernice Ballance. The boat captain you cite is a man, while our friend is female. Not the same person.

Posted by: Yomamma at March 29, 2004 10:43 AM

Yes, But you know they're related.

Posted by: Bigwig at March 29, 2004 10:54 AM